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Today’s engineering field does not reflect the diversity that we know brings the best outcomes.
Black men and women are significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
We can only reach our nation’s true potential if we train a diverse population of students.
According to a 2018 study from the Center for American Progress, “if Black and Hispanic bachelor’s degree recipients were as likely to major in engineering as white students, this country would have produced 20,000 more engineers from 2013 through 2015.”
Here are four things we can do to turn this tide and create a more inclusive and diverse population of engineers:
1. We must create an inclusive culture. Currently, the professoriate at America’s universities is much whiter than the general population. In 2013, only 6 percent of professors were black. We need to have more professors who look like the students we’re trying to recruit so that students have exemplars, and white professors can have meaningful interactions with diverse peers.
2. We need to provide opportunities for young students to experience STEM. Schools are one part of the equation, and we also know that students spend 80 percent of their time outside the classroom. We must improve the opportunities for out-of-school learning for black children. Research tells us that young people from low-income families have significantly less access to non-classroom learning opportunities than their peers from families with more resources. This is true when it comes to structured after-school and summer learning programs, and it is true when it comes to “free choice” learning experiences, like visits to museums or science centers.
3. We must provide ongoing support for students of color through college and career. Recognizing that black men and women who enter schools of engineering will be in the strong minority and likely taught by teachers who do not reflect their backgrounds, our high schools, universities and companies must invest significant attention to ensure these young people feel connected, supported and guided throughout their education and into their careers.
4. We must improve financial-aid programs and policies, both at the federal and state levels. The cost of higher education is a major barrier for young people, particularly first-generation students and student of color, to attend college. We need to ensure that our existing programs, from state and federal aid to scholarships, work better for our students. These programs need to be simplified, more widely communicated and better-funded for our students.
The work is doable. We must foster the potential of young people, strengthen the skills of college students and support networks of engineers. We owe it to our young people and our economy to ensure that we are creating equitable and wide pathways for all to enter the field of engineering.
This story about black students in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Dr. Karl Reid is the executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, a large student-governed organization for black students and professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).